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January 13, 2009

UCLA hopes to finally take next step

About this time a year ago, UCLA had all the headlines and the preseason excitement around Westwood certainly was noticeable.

Things are different this year. The Bruins aren't reading into headlines and players aren't real worried about where they're going to be drafted in June. Instead, players are focused on using last season as a motivational tool for the 2009 campaign.

Though the Bruins are without position players Jermaine Curtis, Alden Carrithers and Brandon Crawford and ace pitcher Tim Murphy, they're still in good shape.

The offense has the most questions to answer. The Bruins have a wealth of talent currently on campus, but are relying on several young freshmen to step up this spring. That may or may not happen, which is why it's important for returnees such as Gabe Cohen and Cody Decker to rise to the occasion.

The pitching staff is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Led by veteran arms Gavin Brooks, Charles Brewer and Brendan Lafferty and freshman sensation Gerrit Cole, the Bruins have high hopes on the mound. The pitching staff also realizes that with a rather inexperienced lineup, they must take some slack the first few weeks of the season.

UCLA coach John Savage said his team's strengths are pitching depth, quality of pitchers and their pitchability on both sides of the plate. He also likes the fact the Bruins have some seasoned arms, such as Brooks and Lafferty, that have been through the rigors of an NCAA postseason.

Savage points to youth up the middle with second baseman Niko Gallego and shortstop Tyler Rahmatulla as a potential weakness. He also is not sure how true freshman catcher Steve Rodriguez will perform in his first season with the program. Savage believes the newcomers will be big-time contributors, but will it be this season?

With the pitching staff in great shape entering the season, UCLA's ability to be an elite team likely hinges on its offense and production from young players.


UCLA AT-A-GLANCE
The Bruins need another productive campaign from veteran Casey Haerther.
LAST SEASON
Record: 33-27, 13-11 in Pac-10
In a nutshell: The Bruins entered the 2008 season expected to compete for the national title, but that didn't happen. UCLA had consistency issues throughout the season and finished with an overall record of 33-27. Despite finishing conference play with a respectable 13-11 record and reaching the Fullerton regional championship, coach John Savage and his team are very much disappointed with how last season ended. The Bruins had hoped to become a national power last season, but perhaps it will happen this year.
PROBABLE STARTERS

Cohen
C Steve Rodriguez (Fr.)
1B Alex Weber-Shapiro (Jr. Transfer)
2B Niko Gallego (So.)
SS Tyler Rahmatulla (Fr.)
3B Casey Haerther (Jr.)
OF Gabe Cohen (Jr.)
OF Justin Uribe (Jr.)
OF Blair Dunlap (Jr.)
DH Cody Decker (Sr.)
SP Gavin Brooks (Jr.)
SP Gerrit Cole (Fr.)
SP Charles Brewer (Jr.)
CP Brendan Lafferty (Sr.)
Head coach: John Savage
2009 OUTLOOK
There aren't many teams more motivated this season than UCLA. The Bruins entered last season as a unanimous preseason pick to compete for the national title, but that didn't happen. The Bruins lacked consistency and were unable to take care of business in crucial situations. They hope to change that trend this season with veteran hitter Casey Haerther and junior pitcher Gavin Brooks leading the way. Though the Bruins must find a way to replace position players Jermaine Curtis and Brandon Crawford this season, they actually are in good shape with the return of Haerther, Cohen, Decker and others. While the Bruins are cautiously optimistic about the offense, the pitching staff is expected to be one of the nation's best with Gavin Brooks, Gerrit Cole, Charles Brewer, Gerrit Cole and Brendan Lafferty as the leaders. With a deep pitching staff and a more than serviceable offense, the Bruins should win the Pac-10 title.
Offense

The Bruins enter the season without three of their top four hitters from last year's team, but that might not be horrible news considering they hit .279 last season.

Alden Carrithers definitely is the toughest player to replace, while Curtis and Crawford were very good at times.

If the Bruins are to have a good season at the plate, versatile junior Casey Haerther must once again put together an impressive offensive campaign. Haerther finished last season hitting .324 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs. He also recorded 23 doubles, one triple and 138 total bases. Additionally, he had a .580 slugging percentage and a .376 on-base percentage.

The Bruins also welcome back Cohen, Dunlap, Decker and Uribe.

Cohen had a monster freshman campaign two seasons ago, but lost confidence and took a giant step back last season. He batted .204 with nine homers and 29 RBIs. He also had a .429 slugging percentage and a .304 on-base percentage. Sources close to the program say Cohen had a strong fall and is primed to make a strong return this spring.

Dunlap wasn't a full-time contributor last season, but had his moments. He, too, must elevate his game this season. Dunlap batted .250 with a pair of homers and 16 RBIs last season. He also slugged .341 and had a .282 on-base percentage.

Decker is the hitter to watch. Though he only hit .218 with seven homers and 30 RBIs last season, he showed improvement during fall workouts and could become a consistent power threat.

Uribe two months last season because of an elbow surgery, but finished the year hitting .283 with eight RBIs.

Also keep an eye on sophomore Niko Gallego, who will be a full-time starter this spring and finished last season hitting .317 with four RBIs.

Though the UCLA offense currently is dealing with uncertainty, it'll be interesting to see how the addition of hitting coach Rick Vanderhook changes the dynamic of their lineup. His addition to the program should help.


Starting pitching

This could be a fun unit to watch this season.

Though the Bruins have failed to live up to expectations on the mound the past couple seasons, I get the feeling the starting rotation will be solid with a healthy Gavin Brooks and Charles Brewer leading the charge.

Brooks fought some issues last season but still made 14 starts. He had a 6-3 record and a 5.07 ERA in 71 innings of work. He also struck out 62 and walked 53, while opponents hit him at a .252 clip. Brooks could become a high-round draft pick in June with a strong campaign.

Brewer, meanwhile, finally can focus on a season without worrying about his health. The junior right-hander made 13 starts last season, had a 9-4 record and also had a 5.10 ERA in 97 innings of work. He also struck out 69 and walked 31, while opponents hit him at a .281 clip.

Freshman right-hander Gerrit Cole could be the trump card for the Bruins. Cole turned down first-round money from the New York Yankees last June and chose to attend college. Savage said Cole had a great fall on the mound and could be one of the best before his college career is finished.

UCLA's starting rotation underachieved last season, but I expect the opposite to be the case this season.


Bullpen

This is UCLA's strongest unit entering the season.

The Bruins' weekend rotation still has some uncertainty, but the bullpen will be ready to take the slack if something goes wrong in that area.

Senior left-hander Brendan Lafferty, who made 33 appearances last season and had a 3.74 ERA in 67 1/3 innings of work, leads the bullpen. He also struck out 56 and walked 30, while opponents hit him at a .254.

The Bruins also expect solid campaigns from Rob Rasmussen, Dan Klein, Garett Claypool, Matt Grace and Jason Novak.

Rasmussen, who missed much of last season because of a foot injury, is back and making a good impression on the coaching staff. Klein, Claypool, Grace and Novak also had good falls and will log significant innings this season.

Keep a close eye on freshman right-hander Trevor Bauer. Bauer joined the team at winter break and Savage said he could be the closer at some point this season.

Barring a major surprise, the bullpen will be very good in '09.


Shoes to Fill

The Bruins have some tough shoes to fill this spring, but the damage basically is limited to the offense.

Offensively, the Bruins must find a way to replace Jermaine Curtis, Brandon Crawford and Alden Carrithers.

Curtis batted .306 with a pair of homers and 26 RBIs last season. He also recorded 18 doubles, two triples and 100 total bases. Additionally, he slugged .426 with a .426 on-base percentage.

Crawford hit .302 last season with seven homers and 51 RBIs, while Carrithers is the biggest loss. Carrithers was a reliable hitter last season and batted .377 with five homers and 47 RBIs. He also recorded 16 doubles, three triples and 121 total bases. Additionally, he slugged .543 and had a .484 on-base percentage.

The Bruins still are in good shape on the mound, but replacing gritty left-hander Tim Murphy certainly is a tough chore.

Murphy was the attitude behind the team last season and made 15 starts. He also had a 3.34 ERA in 102 1/3 innings of work, while striking out 111 and walking 46. Opponents hit him at a .227 clip.


Must Step Up

The Bruins have several position starters that must step up at the plate, but it starts with veterans Cody Decker and Gabe Cohen.

Two seasons ago, Decker hit .307 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs. He also slugged .583 and had a .376 on-base percentage. Cohen, meanwhile, finished the '07 season hitting .345 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs.

Last season, Decker hit .218 with seven homers and 30 RBIs, while Cohen batted .204 with nine homers and 29 RBIs.

While Decker and Cohen must be key cogs at the plate, ace pitcher Gavin Brooks needs to become a dominant pitcher.

Brooks certainly has the tools to be one of the nation's best pitchers, but has yet to live up to expectations in his first two seasons with the Bruins. In '07, Brooks had a 4.47 ERA in 110 2/3 innings of work. Last season, Brooks had a 5.07 ERA in 71 innings of work.

If Decker, Cohen and Brooks play at a high level this season, the Bruins likely will be much better than their current ranking.


Impact Newcomer

UCLA will rely heavily on newcomers this season.

Cole is the top newcomer for the Bruins. The talented right-hander hovered in the mid-90s throughout fall workouts and dazzled the coaching staff. As a high school senior last season, Cole had a 0.46 ERA in 75 2/3 innings. He also recorded 121 strikeouts and walked just 18 batters.

Also watch for position players Steve Rodriguez, Alex Weber-Shapiro, Tyler Rahmatulla, Chris Amezquita and pitcher Trevor Bauer.

Rodriguez isn't a stellar hitter but brings a lot to the table defensively. Weber-Shapiro played at Claremont McKenna College last season, where he batted .464 with eight homers, 43 RBIs and 25 walks.

Rahmatulla is the best freshman hitter on campus while Amezquita also swings the bat well and could end up at third base if Haerther moves back to first base.

Also remember Bauer. The coaching staff really likes his makeup and his high school numbers were impressive. As a high school junior, Bauer went 12-0 with a 0.79 ERA in 70 2/3 innings.

The Bruins have a talented crop of newcomers to utilize this season.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.



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